Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Van Zants

We all know and love the song, Sweet Home Alabama, as well as the band it was sung by - Lynyrd Skynyrd. A band that quickly became a symbol of the southern rock boom in the 1970’s. The song sings of blue skies and cities in Alabama, but did you know that the band had its origins in Jacksonville and Green Cove Springs? They grew up in a house near Murray Hill known as “The Van Zant House”, which was the childhood home of band members Ronnie and Johnny Van Zant. The house is located in Westside Jacksonville, in a neighborhood the Van Zant boys called “Shantytown”.

Lynyrd Skynyrd came to be in Jacksonville in the summer of 1964. Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, and Gary Rossington were teenagers at the time, and met while playing baseball. Playing on opposing teams, Ronnie struck Bob in the head with a baseball. This accidental encounter led to a spontaneous afternoon jam session in the carport of Bob's parents' house, which then inspired the trio to form a band. Little did they know that this decision would change their lives forever; & this band they just decided to start would grow to be one of the most famous, and hardworking bands of all time. The original band consisted of members Ronnie Van Zant (lead vocalist), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar), Larry Junstrom (bass guitar), and Bob Burns (drums).

Back then, the Van Zant brothers used their childhood home as a home base to decorate the halls with the band’s gold and platinum records while they were out traveling the world performing their music for millions to see. Today that very home is a vacation rental, and according to the house’s website: “Inside this main house, you'll find some cool memorabilia, a vintage 1938 Brunswick pool table, and a retro 70's feel, to remind us all of the way things were, with a hint of nostalgia.” In 2018 the house was given a historical marker to forever memorialize the home as not only a part of Jacksonville’s history, but as a vital piece of Rock N’ Roll history. 

As well as Jacksonville, Green Cove Springs was also essential to the band’s history & played a crucial role in this group’s rise to fame. At one point in time, driving down Russell Rd is where you would’ve found a farm that was home to an old cabin known as “The Hell House.” Surrounded by nature, a creek, and tall pine trees, this house was given its name thanks to its lack of air conditioning. Here is where the band wrote most of their first and second albums, and where they practiced for many years before outgrowing the space and moving on. Hell House was destroyed by a fire and the original property is now part of Edgewater Landing, a gated community. In the community, you’ll find some of its streets named after popular Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.

On any given day in the 70’s, you’d hear the sounds of some good ol’ southern rock music flowing out of the cabin, according to one of our very own, Andrea Lawrence (our team’s buy side transaction coordinator and realtor). Andrea grew up across the street from Hell House and got to hear their rehearsals. Not only that, but it was her mother’s second cousin, John Gohagen, who owned the Hell House and was friends with the band. How cool is that?! At the time, she was a young girl and didn’t know who they were yet - she just thought they were some guys playing music too loud. She loved being outside growing up, so she got to hear them play often. What a funny and sweet thought - a young girl getting to freely listen to the band before a lot of people knew their name, and thinking they were loud! I’m sure all the surrounding neighbors were in agreement on that! She said her sister recalls seeing hippy looking guys walking around the farm picking up mushrooms - you’ve got to laugh at that…with it being the 1970’s, that doesn’t come as a surprise at all! Though she may have thought differently growing up, nowadays Andrea is a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. She said that knowing she grew up across the street from Hell House makes her like them even more, and makes her feel like she has a connection to the band. She believes that they, and their music, helped put her hometown on the map.

 

Andrea & her siblings, & their home across the street from the Hell House.

From their humble Jacksonville beginnings, to their loud jam sessions in Green Cove Springs, and to touring the world - Lynyrd Skynyrd earned their place on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. Quite the achievement for a couple of boys from Shantytown. In the Rolling Stones article, Al Kooper mentions: “As I got to know them, I marveled at their work ethic. They had a shack on the swamp in their native Jacksonville, Florida, where they rehearsed constantly, honing their original material into polished, shining steel. They may have had three guitar players, but they understood restraint. Of all the bands I'd come across in my life, they were the finest arrangers. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ sounds like seasoned studio musicians twice their age.” Lynyrd Skynyrd proved that hard work does pay off. Just a couple of guys from Jacksonville who didn’t give up on their dreams, and kept working at their craft. Between The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, these bands helped our beloved city of Jacksonville forever become an inspiring piece of rock history.

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